by Pat Jacobs
From the late 1950s through the 1960s, Top 40 AM radio ruled (The format often acted as a barometer AND arbiter of musical taste.
A notable exception was the popularity of offshore pirate radio stations in the U.K., such as "Radio Caroline". These stations developed out of frustration with the must-be-approved-by-the-BBC Playlist of commercial radio.)
But in 1966, there was a significant turn in the road that greatly affected American radio from then on (Top 40 seems to have weathered the storm; there's
always a variation of it SOMEWHERE.)
The first FM rock station debuted in New York on July 30th-WOR-FM at 98.7. (All this came about because the FCC-Federal Communications Commission-declared that by Jan. 1st, 1967, all FM stations in major markets must have separate programming ,those that were co-owned with AM stations.
Before this, most FM stations just simply broadcast the same thing as their AM stations; For at this time, AM was where the audience was. The FCC thought this was a waste of the air waves.)
The WOR-FM powers-that-be decided early on that rock music would be played,, but there were no DJs for a few months-just music, jingles, and commercials. Why? Because AFTRA (American Federation of TV and Radio Announcers-in other words, the union!) had to work out a scale for FM DJs. Then on Oct. 8th, everything came together; the DJ lineup debuted. Radio would never be the same.
On AM, particularly the top 40 format, a typical program would not only consist of playing the top forty hit singles as rated by Billboard or from the station's own charts of local top-sellers, but jingles, promotions, gags, call-ins and requests, time and weather announcements, advertising (very important), and of course, the hyper excited DJ.
WOR on FM was very different; the music sounded clearer and some was in stereo. The DJs were low-keyed and "quiet" (Several of the DJs, such as the legendary Murray the K, had previously worked at AM top 40 stations.) WOR-FM soon caught on with the college crowd, and the station became "cool". And highly rated.
Soon, Boston and San Francisco debuted with a similar FM format. By 1968, FM stations were everywhere. Some played top 40, but others, like San Francisco's KMPX played rock album cuts.
And other new formats developed. There was Freeform: a DJ was given total control over what music to play, regardless of what genre or commercial interests (In the U.S., the DJs were still under FCC regulations, however.) The first freeform program was "Nightsounds" on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, with DJ John Leonard (WFMU in New Jersey is the longest running freeform station in the U.S.)
The Eclectic format also jumped across any and all genres, but did involve prescribed Playlist. Progressive Rock stations and their DJs were given a wide lattitude in what they played, but it basically had to be only or mostly only rock music. WNEW in New York was one of the most successful of this format.
Other pioneers were: WMMR (Philadelphia), WMMS (Cleveland), CJOM (Detroit/Windsor), WXRT (Chicago), KSAN (San Francisco), and KMET (Los Angeles). Pioneer DJs and program director of this genre included Tom Donahue
(San Francisco) and Scott Muni (New York). Progressive rock later developed into the format of AOR (Album-Oriented Rock), in which album cuts were the musical focus.
Did you know that FM radio was invented in the mid-1930s by Edwin Howard Armstrong? (He was an inventor who had already devised a successful circuit
to improve AM radio. He's considered the most prolific inventor in radio history.) Armstrong was well aware of AM's limitations-the static interference, limited audio quality, and nighttime interference between many stations, because of ionospheres refraction. Armstrong's new approach to encoding audio for transmission eliminated these problems.
He then took his invention to a friend, David Sarnoff, head of RCA, who promised to help Armstrong develop it; RCA bought the patents and helped Armstrong develop an experimental radio station.
But that's ALL the help Armstrong got; Sarnoff and RCA were threatened by the new invention and didn't want the competition . Years of costly legal battles ensued that RCA could afford and Armstrong couldn't.
The FM station they helped Armstrong built was closed down. So Armstrong started to develop FM radio on his own, selling FM radio manufacturing rights to
several companies. By 1941, several FM stations were on the air.
Then Pearl Harbor was bombed; resources were diverted and development was stopped. Sarnoff and RCA, still threatened, pressured the FCC to change all of the FM radio frequencies, thus instantly making obsolete all existing FM radios; Armstrong lost his personal investment.
Listeners were upset that their radios were now useless, and were very reluctant to buy the FM ones now. And most station owners didn't want the expense of creating programming just for their FM, so the FCC allowed them to simulcast
(Years later, of course, the FCC reversed this decision.) TV's evolution saw FM
radio interest further diminished; by 1949, many FM stations had shut down. And RCA continued to tie Armstrong with more court battles, further draining his creative energy and financial resources.
On Jan. 31st, 1954, Edwin Armstrong jumped from his 13th-story New York apartment to his death. He never lived to see what an astounding success his invention became.
A few weeks later, RCA announced record profits. And when FM radio started making money, RCA pushed its development, making millions from FM transmitter and equipment sales. (Sometimes the way things work out just sucks, doesn't it?)
The first FM stations broadcast classical music and educational programming.
It wasn't until 1978 that FM became mainstream (The first year that listenership to FM stations exceeded that of AM stations. It was?)
AM has become the preserve of talk radio, religious programming, foreign language broadcasts, and some types of minority interest music, like polka (What FM used to be!).
Belgium, Denmark, Holland, and West Germany were among the first countries to adopt FM.
Ireland an Australia (FM started here in 1947, but didn't catch on and was shut down in 1961 for an extended TV band. FM wasn't reopened here until 1975.)
were far slower at adopting FM radio than either North America or Europe.
The BBC began broadcasting in 1955. Most other countries expanded their use of FM through the 1990s.
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